Westminster Abbey vs St Paul’s - an evensong shoot-out

Whilst in London for our half-term mini break we took (our Brecon chorister) Robin to evensong at Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s, to see how the other half live.

On the way to evensong at the Abbey

First up was the Abbey, on Tuesday. We arrived at about 16:40 and were ushered into places about 6 feet from the Cantoris trebles’ east end. We were furnished with full guides to the music being performed at the choral services for the week – much appreciated.

Westminster Abbey choral services pamphlet

The choir sang an introit in the nave: Humphrey Clucas (b 1941) Delight thou in the Lord: and he shall give thee thy heart’s desire. This was intriguing, the sound floating in from an unseen choir, but we couldn’t really hear the piece.

When the choir entered the quire, it became apparent there was no O’Donnell in charge, and some research later suggested it was sub-organist Daniel Cook in charge, with organ scholar Peter Holder at the keyboards. Morley’s preces & responses were despatched with efficiency, but without lifting my soul. Psalms 142 and 143 showed how confident the treble line were in reaching for the end of a phrase, something that scares the crap out of the Brecon front row, and were carried through with beautiful diction if a lack of emotion. The Dec trebles were totally dominated by the blond head chorister, who’s performance of the evening was impeccable. We could barely hear the others, and Robin pointed out to me that one of them barely moved his mouth while singing (at which I held my tongue). The impressive and difficult Wise canticles, which I had not heard before and which featured many verses of solo parts, exposed some nervous or under-prepared trebles, and revealed some lay vicars who were just not quite as toned as I was expecting (my expectations were ludicrously high!). There was one very poignant moment where a senior treble crucified a couple of bars of solo, singing the whole thing a semitone flat, and the tiny one next to him immediately looked at him with wide-eyed astonishment and possibly fear. The early music was all accompanied by a chamber organ, positioned in the middle, however everything was back-to-front… the organ was facing East, the conductor West, yet Can and Dec were on their usual sides – perhaps a Westminster thing?

Finally, Purcell’s O Lord God of Hosts was lovely, with only minor wobbles. Robin echoed my feelings that the conducting was hard to follow, but that’s mainly about what you get used to.

Overall I gave them 7 out of 10 for this one, but sensed they could do a lot better.

Then to St Paul’s on Wednesday, where we were treated to a programme well known to us in Brecon.

St Paul's service music sheet

It transpired that the service was being filmed by the BBC, and most of the congregation were seated out of the way in the nave beneath the main dome. With a little persistence we managed to gain admission to the quire, and were seated about 20 yards from the East end of the choir stalls. This didn’t afford quite the same forensic experience as at Westminster, particularly given the acoustic at St Paul’s (if the Abbey has a three second echo, St Paul’s has a six), but it was perhaps a better position for appreciating the choir as a whole.

Proceedings began with an introit – Tallis O nata lux, again performed in the nave. This was well executed, but with the monstrous echo it had become a bit mushy by the time it reached us.

Ayleward’s preces and responses sounded not unlike they do in Brecon, though the confidence and unity of the St Paul’s treble line was starting to impress. Psalms 137 & 138 were fine, though the words were less clear than at the Abbey – perhaps the acoustic and our extra distance. I couldn’t tell who was doing the arm-waving – Andrew Carwood or one of his assistants/subs – but the style of it during the psalms was most peculiar: a kind of pumping action with the elbows, forearms vertical. I know it’s all about what you get used to in rehearsals, and the proof of the pudding is in the listening, but Robin and I found the conducting on both evenings hard to interpret; “not nearly as good as Mr Duthie”, opined the wee man.

The Purcell in G minor canticles were particularly interesting to hear, as we do them regularly in Brecon and I have done the semi-chorus verses a couple of times. I think it’s fair to say we always find them a bit challenging (e.g. the skippy “he hath scattered…” bits) especially since Dan and Lowri graduated from the top line. St Paul’s rendition was impressive and nearly faultless, apart from a wobbly treble solo section in the Nunc. The anthem was more Purcell: O God, thou art my God – lovely. Perhaps I found the bass line vibrato a bit heavy for Purcell, but that’s probably just me. Eight out of ten overall.

And so to the Millennium Bridge and the boat, capturing this reflection of us and St Paul’s on the way…

Crispin, Naomi and Robin after evensong at St Paul's

Overall we all felt St Paul’s nicked it chorally, and Robin preferred the architecture as well (twinkly ceilings). We certainly learned a thing or two to take back to Brecon. Yet neither occasion quite matched what I experienced in Chichester a couple of weeks ago, where I was genuinely inspired by the tiny pristine choir and intimate setting.

A happy chorister on the Millennium Bridge after St Paul's evensong